Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison, and I have been an educator and a teacher-trainer since August of 1990. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction. I also focus on critical thinking techniques, especially during the pre-writing and revision steps of the writing process. Every year, I challenge myself to improve my instruction: I am curretly developing grammar and vocabulary lessons so that they're differentiated and promote deep, critical thinking skills, and I incorporate them into my classroom routines to promote a student-centered classroom environment.

The Northern Nevada district I serve has a "balanced calendar" that has me teaching from early August to early June, and during my 7 weeks of summer and during my two annual two-week breaks, I independently contract to present workshops to school districts and professional organizations around the country.

The winter and spring of 2017 are mostly booked up at this point. Beginning in mid-June, I will be available to present at summer workshops in your district or state.

You can find general information about my workshops here.

If you would like to check my availability for summer of 2017, please contact me at this e-mail address.

Always
Write

 
       Because writing--when taught right--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, I created this website.

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Contact me through my e-mail address with questions/comments about this lesson: Corbett@CorbettHarrison.com

This page contains one of my original writer's notebook lesson ideas I created for my students. We write every day in my middle school classroom, and my wife can say the same thing about her second- through eight-grade students. To assist every one of students as they each maintain a writer's notebooks, my amazing wife and fellow writing teacher--Dena Harrison--and I created three tools that ensure our students always have something to write about during our first ten minutes of class each day. They are:

  1. Sacred Writing Time Slides: with a posted daily holiday, bizarre trivia fact, inspirational quote, and vocabulary word, these slides continue to inspire interesting ten-minute sessions of writing from even my most reluctant writers. (Click here for a free sample of this product)
  2. Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards: for those students who prefer a prompt, here's a variation of that strategy that still gives students a choice. Each Bingo Card has twenty-four interesting writing prompts, and challenging students who like prompts to make one Bingo a month works well. (Click here for a free sample of this product)
  3. Writer's Notebook/Workshop Choice Menus: these menus contain more depth and complexity in how they present their prompts to students who prefer a choice of prompts to "spark" their writing. These menus' "entree sections" also set up students to create pre-writing that could very easily become a piece for writer's workshop, if you use that model. (Click here for a free sample of this product)

As soon as we are settled, we write in silence for ten minutes. Most of my learners bring their own ideas with them to class, but others still need a creative or logical jumping-off place. Musicians improve when they practice every day. Athletes improve when they practice each day. So too do developing writers. My students learn to take their ten minutes of sacred writing very seriously because that is the expectation I set forth from day one. We write. Every day. For ten silent minutes. And develop fluency. And practice newly learned writing skills. And try creative approaches. Often we share with our SWT Partners after Sacred Writing Time. It's the established routine in our classroom.

Here's one of my best tricks for helping your students really love their notebooks: Once a month, I also require a special creative page from all my writers for their notebooks; these pages need to be the kind of page that--if you flipped back through your own notebook a year later--you'd always stop and say, "Wow, I put some time, effort, and thought into this page!" when you encounter it again. I use these assigned notebook lessons to teach a trait-specific writing skill in a fun way, and we use those skills to create rough drafts on scratch paper, then we create a final draft of the writing in our notebooks. The final draft in the notebook is supposed to be revised, edited, and--somehow--visually appealing.

My April Teacher-Guided Lesson for Writer's Notebooks:
a processing task that's great for writing across the curriculum:
Superlative Paragraphs
Prioritizing Facts using Important Book Passages

Overview of this Writer's Notebook Prompt:

This notebook prompt teaches students a format for summarizing or processing learning that can be used when producing writing in all curriculum areas: an Important Book passage, which I call a superlative paragraph in my classroom .

Inspired by Margaret Wise Brown's classic picture book, The Important Book, students practice a format for writing an organized paragraph that "puts into their own words" new facts they've recently learned; more importantly, they learn to prioritize their thinking and express that prioritization while thinking about this grammatical term: superlatives.

There are a lot of lessons out there that rely on this mentor text, and I have to say, most of them I don't find very creative; mainly, other lessons focus too much on teaching the structured nature of Important Book passages, and when you do that, I believe you lose something. So I tried to build this lesson so that it would spark my students' creativity by giving them the safety of the frame for writing but permission to think outside that frame as well.

Also, I'm a true believer that grammar and grammatical terms should be taught "in context," which means--rather than through lecture and a practice worksheet--students apply grammatical terms to a piece of original writing they are creating for my class. Research stresses this is a more effective approach in helping students apply and remember lessons about grammar...and punctuation too. This lesson focuses on learning about superlatives in context.

The Important Book, by the way, plays a prominent role in my Writing Across the Curriculum Workshop for Teachers, whose materials you can preview freely here at my website. In my opinion, if your school is planning on beginning a Writing Across the Curriculum initiative, this is a must-have mentor text in your professional school library. Personally, I have ten paperback copies just in my classroom alone, and they are worth every penny I paid for them.

My mentor text for this lesson:

The Important Book
by Margaret Wise Brown

Interacting with the Mentor Text:

If you use my mentor text classification system, you know there are three types of mentor texts: idea, structure, and craft. The Important Book is definitely the simplest structure mentor texts to get started with--other than imitating an ABC book, that is.

Are you one of those teachers who still hasn't discovered The Important Book? If you are, you really should consider obtaining a classroom copy. My annual introduction of this well-known mentor text begins when I am ready to teach my students to move beyond "hamburger paragraphs." My goal as a writing teacher is to teach my students how to move from structured paragraphs to paragraphs that do not rely on a format at all. A true paragraph, I've always said, should achieve a purpose, not a formula; however, I'm a good enough writing teacher to say this: before students can write formula-less paragraphs, they have to learn what a paragraph is, how to organize it, and most of my kids require a structure to do this. Important Book passages are structured but not as structured as a hamburger paragraph, so it's one step away from relying on a paragraph frame. If you believe in scaffolding, this is a perfect middle step between very formulaic and less formulaic paragraphing skills.

I actually start teaching Important Book passages in the fall; in April, when I teach the lesson on this page, we have actually moved past these passages and are writing paragraphs that are mostly un-structured, but I bring this format for writing back for students to use in their writer's notebooks. Between the fall and the spring, I also add the element of thinking about perspective to their Important Book passages, which I will explain below.

In The Important Book, Margaret Wise Brown--a poet and picture book author--describes items (rain, wind, apples, etc.) to the reader from a poetic point-of-view. Each page focuses on a different item, but each page uses the same formula to describe the item. Her first sentence (see poster at left from my teacher-friend Amy Harbarger's wall, or click here to repin/like it at Pinterest) starts with the words "The important thing about [item] is..." Brown, then, describes other relevant details about the item using her poetic perspective. She concludes each page with a repetitive reminder: "But the important thing about [item] is [a repeat of the first sentence]." This is a nice little formula that, as I've already said said, can be easily used by students.

What I focus students on when sharing and imitating these passages is that the author, I believe, has truly selected what she believes is the most important poetic element to begin and end her passages with. The discussion of each passage, in my classroom, always includes these two questions: "Why do you think she has chosen this as the most important element of the item? If you, as a person who perhaps isn't as poetic as the author, had to express what you believe the most important element is, would you select something different and why?"

When you start putting the word most in front of the word important, it opens up a whole discussion about perspective and superlatives. Completing a straight-forward Important Book passage is fairly easy, but being able to justify your choice of the most important thing opens the possibilities for having deeper, cognitive discussions. Students will (hopefully) disagree with one another if writing passages about the same topic. Students will (hopefully) disagree with Margaret Wise Brown's perspective as a poet as they consider her chosen most important element. I want that kind of rich discussion and debate among my students.

Just to illustrate how rich the discussions can become of this mentor text's passages, consider the page where she talks about rain. Margaret Wise Brown decided the most important element of rain is that it is wet. That's her poetic opinion, which I can certainly see. To throw a perspective-inspired challenge at my students, I ask:

  • What would a meteorologist say is the most important thing about rain?
  • What would a Dust Bowl farmer say is the most important thing about rain?
  • What would someone living in a flood plain say is the most important thing about rain?

And suddenly, perspective adds a whole new element to our Important Book passages, which I find many seasoned teachers find to be a refreshing new twist on using this mentor text. I challenge you to come up with perspective questions (like my three bullets above) for the other pages in Margaret Wise Brown's original text. It's actually fun.

And then, I challenge you to start requiring your students to write these passages from another's perspective as well as their own. "It's not just about how you see the world," I tell my students over and over again in all of our discussion, "it's also about how you accept, react, and discuss to others' perspectives of the same worldly topics."

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A Quick Note about Superlatives:

I love throwing grammatical terms at my students when we are in the midst of a writing task. Superlatives and Important Book passages go hand-in-hand. If you've not taught superlatives before, here's my explanation:

A superlative is a type of adjective that is made in one of three ways:

  • If you take many adjectives--great, for example--you can add -er and -est to them. The -est version is actually the superlative. The -er version is called the comparative adjective. (Fun grammatical fact they try to fool students with on SAT tests: if you use the superlative form, you must be comparing three or more things; you can say, "She's the smartest of the triplets," but you can't say, "She is the smartest of the twins." Twins are smarter than each other...or happier...or more thoughtful.)
  • If you add the word most or least in front of the adjective, you are speaking in superlatives too. There is no word "importantest" so you have to say "most important." It's important to note that "least important" is also a superlative.
  • Some words' superlative forms are irregular: for example, good, better, and best (as opposed to gooder and goodest).

As you teach/assign Important Book passages, use the word superlative a lot. Make the students use the word; make them point out their superlative ideas in their own passages. When you require students to use the academic language with you and with each other, you are verbally scaffolding them to better remember the meaning and application of your academic vocabulary.

The picture at right is from the "Conventional Superhero Family" page I created in my Writer's Notebook. You can access the entire lesson (which was created for WritingFix by my fellow NNWP Consultant--Courtney Hurlburt--and I added a Writer's Notebook page to it) by clicking here or on the picture of superlative girl

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A Writer's Notebook Page to Review the Traits of Writing:

I have become such a strong proponent of using writer's notebooks during pre-writing--the kind of tools discussed by Ralph Fletcher (at right) in his A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. There's really no better way to pre-write than to have students create a fun page in their writer's notebooks that invests them in a topic for an upcoming writing assignment or thinking task. I like to use my students' writer's notebooks as a place to not only explore future topics for writing but also as opportunities to review (and re-explore) previously-learned, important topics.

With this writer's notebook lesson, we review all six writing traits, which we have had lots of time to think about during the months leading up to this lesson. Each student selects two traits to write Important Book passages about--the trait that is the easiest for them and the trait they still struggle with the most. This is good, individualized information for me to have about each student in the springtime, so we can set one more writing goal for them to accomplish by year's end. I, of course, base the goal on the "struggle trait" they have identified.

Students, taking a look at one of their more recent pieces of portfolio writing, self-select the trait they feel they "have the best handle on as a developing writer" as well as the one that they know still gives them the most trouble. On scratch paper, they begin composing Important Book passages about these two traits, knowing their final drafts will go into their writer's notebooks; they write about their strongest trait first.

Now there have been years that I chose not to allow conventions to be one of their trait-choices for this writing taught--because too many students identified it as their "struggle trait"; I want there to be a variety of traits being written about, so I sometimes make that call. Whether you do or not is up to you. The reason I want there to be a variety is that I like students to help each other write and revise these passages before they go in the notebook, and one of my favorite techniques for this is that--when writing their second passage about their own struggle traits--they have to talk to someone who wrote about the same trait when composing the first passage about their best trait. A student who struggles with organization, let's say, can learn a lot talking to a student who claims to excel with organization; with conventions, the stronger-skilled student in a conversation usually just corrects the errors instead of telling his/her partner how to think about the errors so they might correct the errors independently.

The important thing students must do before composing is to select something that is--according to their own perspective--the most important thing about the traits they are writing about. The more talk you can have students do about their two chosen traits before they write anything down at all, the better.

Here is my teacher model. I make sure students notice how many details come in between my first and last sentences. I also make sure they notice that I have thought out and included an illustration for each passage, which I expect them to plan ahead for as well. If you are wary of asking students to illustrate because of their differentiated artistic skills, be sure to introduce them to Mr. Stick--who serves are our notebooks' margin mascot!


(Click here for a really large version of this notebook page.)

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Superlative Paragraphs as a Writing Across the Curriculum Task:

I share my students with the same math, science, and social studies teachers, which is a wonderful teaching situation; I work very hard to make sure many of my lessons that teach unique writing tasks (like this one) have a "part 2" to them; during "part 2," our students specifically carry the writing technique I've taught them to write about their other content classes with an assignment that they are to bring back--in this case--Important Book passages inspired by content and vocabulary they are studying in those other classrooms. In my Language Arts room, once they have brought ideas back from the other content areas, we work on shaping those ideas so they are the best, small pieces of writing they can be.

When the students have completed both part 1 and part 2 of this month-long notebook task, I can inform my colleagues that their students are ready to use Important Book passages as a new tool in their own learning logs and interactive notebooks.

I inform my students they will become "collectors of original superlative paragraphs" in their other classes over the next three weeks. As they take notes, do activities, and learn in their other core areas of study, they are to always be thinking, "Could I translate this idea into a Important Book passage for Mr. Harrison's assignment?" Every day in my language class, I remind them to do this, and I allow them to talk to each other for a few minutes in small groups to throw ideas back and forth based on that day or the previous day's math, science, and social studies lessons. One day a week (I like Thursdays), I stop class ten or fifteen minutes early and have students partner-up, share the passages they have thought of, ask for revision help from the group to make their couplets sound more natural and fluent, check each other's spelling and punctuation, then copy them neatly onto a page we've designated in their notebooks.

As far as my lesson's timeline, I explain, "If you were to be really doing this task diligently, I would expect you that have a new superlative paragraph for all three--math, science, and social studies--ready to go every week." It doesn't perfectly work out this way for every student, but it's a goal for them to aim for, and many do get there because of my daily reminders. On a common Friday in the near future, they know I will be collecting and grading both sides of their Important Book passages,

Below is my writer's notebook model I photographed to show them after week #1. If you're making your own model, I suggest you photograph the page as it develops this way; showing all three Important Book passages at once can be a bit daunting to my students. You can--of course--use my model, perhaps even successfully represent it as your own with your students, but it's so powerful to go through the process yourself and be able to talk about that with your writers. My passages all are focused something I actually deemed as the most interesting and important fact I recall from my studies of math, science, and history; I am ready to justify why I think the first and last fact in each paragraph is the most interesting/important:


(Click here for a stand-alone version of this page that can be printed on legal-sized paper.)

Here is my writer's notebook model I show them after week #2. You can see I was suddenly liking the fact that I had ended up with two different polygons serving as my illustrations on the right-hand page, and that I was already figuring out how to choose a science subject that could be illustrated with a circle:


(Click here for a stand-alone version of this page that can be printed on legal-sized paper.)

Here is my writer's notebook model I show them after week #3"


(Click here to view/repin this example to your own educational Pinterest Boards.)

Remember, the rough drafts for these Important Book passages go on scratch paper. Only after students have checked their spellings and shared out loud in a group, asking for revision suggestions, are they allowed to carefully transfer the passages into the writer's notebook on the right-hand side of the two-page spread. During Sacred Writing Time, we don't put things into the notebook using this process, but when we're creating a special, stand-out page,

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Samples from my Students' Amazing Notebooks:
(click images to see them at Pinterest, where you can save or re-pin them to your own boards for ease of access)
A note about some of these samples: I changed up the requirements of this two-page spread during my 2011-2012 school year in two ways. First, instead of having my students write a paragraph about their best trait and another about the trait that makes them struggle, I decided to make it all about their strengths; each student had to write about the two traits they felt they did the best work with in general. This allowed me to do some differentiated grouping activities on our upcoming feedback day. Second, because our seventh grade students happened to be working on an interdisciplinary unit (inspired by the Lewis and Clark expedition) about what math, science, and social study skills would be the most important to bring on an expedition to a habitable planet in another solar system, I had them focus their writing across the curriculum superlative paragraphs within that context.

Eighth-grader Sydney shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Eighth-grader Rachel shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Dani shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Kage shares his five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Kevin shares his five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Toni shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Sixth-grader Jacinda shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Sixth-grader Wonje shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

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Use Superlative Paragraphs as a Processing Tool in Future Lessons:

Our students keep interactive notebooks, not only in language arts but also in math, science, and social studies. An interactive notebook is a place where students can 1) record learned information in their own words and also 2) reflect on the learning in a manner that feels right to their own learning style. We attempt to give students many options at the end of lesson to creatively or logically reflect on what has been learned. These superlative paragraphs are a great option for reflection that definitely appeals to some of our students' learning style. It's an organized structure, but it also allows for creative embellishment.

In addition to using these Important Book passages as a processing tool in my own classroom, I remind my three content colleagues to encourage them in their classrooms' interactive notebooks too. I also teach/share the following techniques, among others, to my students to use in all their classrooms: recipe-writes, alpha-lists, 16-word poems, rhyming couplets. If you purchase our Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards, you gain access to these reflection techniques and more!

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An Invitation to Share Students' Superlative Paragraphs Notebook Spreads:

You will have students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this activity--ones that should serve as models for future students who go through this writing task. I hope you'll consider photographing and sharing any students' notebook page that really are inspirational. Tell your students you're going to choose the three best notebook pages and post them at WritingFix's Ning; this is a fabulous way to motivate your writers, and tell your students they could very easily have their notebook pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and writers who visit our free-to-access educational site annually.

The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this lesson. And hey, I'd love to see teachers sharing their own models of this assignment too!

Click here to visit our ning's posting page,
where you can post photographs of student notebook pages.
(If I end up posting your students' notebook pages here at this page, I will send you a complimentary copy of any of my for-sale products listed at TPT!)